Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Problem Solving 101

David Kurtz at TPM has something to say about the rapidly spreading consensus that the ISG "will save the day in Iraq". It may be a "first step" but David sounds like he may be an evidence-based thinker like me and he's questioning some of the underlying assumptions and he's finding them wanting (in the 'lacking' sense, not in the 'yearning' sense though, gawd knows, there's a lot of yearning going on when thinking about Iraq).

In the Daily Digest this morning I touched on the growing expectations that the Baker/Hamilton Iraq Study Group, in combination with the installation of Bob Gates at the Pentagon, will save the day in Iraq.

It has become the consensus view, crosses party lines, and seems to be based in part on the assumption that anything is better than the current Iraq policy and its chief implementer, Don Rumsfeld.

But there are some other assumptions--some faulty, some overly optimistic--inflating those expectations:

(1) That the ISG recommendations will be substantive, well-founded, and more than mere political cover for a change of strategy yet to be unveiled. Perhaps they will be prudent recommendations, but I don't know why anyone would assume that yet.

(2) That the Administration will first embrace and then effectively implement the ISG recommendations. This assumption seems wildly at odds with this Administration's track record in both respects. Today's Washington Post reports that the Administration is doing its own policy review parallel to the ISG's, which does not suggest any kind of warm embrace:

The two reviews are not competitive, administration officials said, although the White House wants to complete the process before mid-December, about the time the Iraq Study Group's final report is expected.

The White House's decision changes the dynamics of what happens next to U.S. policy deliberations. The administration will have its own working document as well as recommendations from an independent bipartisan commission to consider as it struggles to prevent further deterioration in Iraq.

I'm also not willing to buy all the pop psychology about the prodigal Bush 43 finally returning to the orbit of Bush 41, chastened by his experience in the international arena.

(3) That Bob Gates is going to make a dramatic difference over the next two years. First, I remember the last time we were promised wisdom, experience, and a steady hand from a member of Bush 41's old team. That was Dick Cheney. Second, the options available to the U.S. for proceeding in the Middle East range from very bad to horrendous. Neither Gates nor anyone else is going to be able to clean up this mess in the next two years.

(4) That things can't get any worse. Things can always get worse. We could see Turkey and Iran militarily staking claims to parts of Iraqi territory. We could have terrorist brigades from Iraq running missions into Saudi Arabia and Jordan to destabilze the regimes there. Iran could assert itself militarily in the Gulf. The Middle East is Murphy's Law squared.

(5) That the sooner we start implementing the ISG recommendations, the sooner our troops come home and the more American lives will be saved. First, see (1) through (4) above. Second, I still have a hard time envisioning a Republican Administration bringing home all the troops in short order and leaving oil-rich Iraq in chaos in the midst of a vital oil-producing region. We may very well witness a spike in the number of American troop casualities in the process of trying to extricate ourselves or in the process of trying to prevent a larger regional conflict.

If the first step in solving a problem is admitting you have a problem, then we may be at that first step. Our long national denial may be over. But admitting you have a problem doesn't in and of itself solve the problem. And right now Iraq is a problem begging for solutions.

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